Needed: a philosophy for the cyberspace age

Something is missing from the computer networks industry: a sense of purpose. We're so busy building and using networks that we seldom stop to ask ourselves how they fit into the larger scheme of things. Do people build networks just because they help pay the bills, or as the only species that assembles knowledge for transmission to future generations, are we striving toward some long-range goal?

Sure, the Internet is teeming with third-wave Pied Pipers. Some, such as the Progress and Freedom Foundation, focus on socioeconomic issues such as opposing or influencing government regulation. Others, such as the Extropy Institute, seem caught up in a hedonistic celebration of technology. There is surprisingly little discussion about technology's ultimate purpose.

There was once a respected group of people who devoted their lives to exploring such fundamental questions. They were called philosophers. Often, they were also scientists. Michael Faraday, the 19th-century pioneer of electricity and magnetism, to whom the information technology industry is greatly indebted, routinely referred to his fellow researchers as philosophers.

Of course, philosophers did more than just raise bothersome questions. Philosophers were meticulous in their analysis and articulation of ideas. They helped others clarify their thinking and, on occasion, could be a source of inspiration.

Today, few IT researchers can rightly be called philosophers. We have accumulated so much knowledge and each individual must master so much detail in order to have any impact that virtually all scientists are specialists. We consider anyone who calls himself a philosopher an intellectual jack-of-all-trades - and, consequently, a master of none.

So we have consigned philosophers to academia. Worse, the entire profession seems to be in a cosmic rut. Most philosophers busy themselves analysing the structure of language. Those who venture into the realm of technology focus on what they see as its ethical dilemmas. To wit, they believe the philosopher's role is to warn society of technology's hidden dangers. The advent of computer networks, and more specifically the establishment of cyberspace, cries out for a new philosophical movement. We need a new breed of philosopher - people with the courage to propose and debate the long-term goals of technological development.

It's often said technology is neither inherently good nor bad - it's what we do with it that matters. It's odd that philosophers don't challenge this view. Philosophers have always believed knowledge to be the highest pursuit. Surely, they appreciate the wondrous tools, from the printing press to the Internet, that technology has provided for the dissemination of learning.

If I am wrong, if technology does pose serious risks to humanity, a resurgence of philosophy is desperately required. But even if I am right, there is still a compelling need. The universe can be a dangerous place, and it would be a shame if we came up just short trying to save ourselves from extinction. Philosophers could help us identify the right priorities.

Here are some of the questions I think philosophers should start exploring. Must technology destroy religious, political and social institutions, or could it enhance them? As machines take on more functions, which roles should be reserved for humans? Will machines ever be able to think? If so, should humans plan to eventually abandon their physical bodies and migrate to cyberspace?

Answers to these questions would certainly put networks in a new light.

(Brodsky is president of Datacomm Research, a Missouri-based consultancy. He can be reached at ibrodsky@ix.netcom.com.)

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